Before I went to bed the other night, I read from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. For context, Frederick Douglass is one of the most renowned slave-born freedmen in American history. He decisively proved that African Americans could live freely, contradicting a predominant error in his day. His autobiography is stirring and inspirational. Yet, at times it is also painful. He recounts sinister acts committed against him and his fellow slave-men by their masters. He also recounts instances which ought to make any Personalist extremely uncomfortable.
The utter disparity of constitutional righteousness and personal wickedness exhibited within Douglass’ work struck me deeply. Disparity, as I use it, consists in men who bear the dignity and glory of being made in God’s image acting, in their persons, contrary to that image in disgusting ways. Constitution refers to the form which each individual bears in common with others (humanity), while the term person refers to the individual in question acting out of that form (Tim, Paul, or Sally). The failure of the individual person to live up to his substantial form is what constitutes disparity.
Douglass vividly recounts his experience of the plantation’s overseer, Mr. Gore. He was, “…proud, ambitious, and persevering…Mr. Gore acted fully up to the maxim laid down by slaveholders, ‘It is better that a dozen slaves suffer under the lash, than that the overseer should be convicted’…No matter how innocent a slave might be—it availed him nothing…to be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished; the one always following the other with immutable certainty.”
The climax of disparity is felt when Douglass recounts Gore’s murder of an unsubmissive slave. The slave’s name was Demby. Demby was being whipped by Mr. Gore—Douglass doesn’t specify why. Demby received a few stripes when, in order to escape the scourging, he ran away and escaped to a creek. When reading Douglass here, I felt for Demby. Douglas continues with Demby in the creek, “…Mr. Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him” (38).
Demby refused the first and second calls. At this point, you can almost feel Demby as if you were him. He’s not reasoning, he’s acting. His fear overcame all reason. Douglass continues “Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.”
You can feel it can’t you? The disparity? The disparity between the psychopath and the abused. The disparity between the image of God and the utter wickedness. You can feel the disparity between a man acting out of sincere, broken emotion and a man acting out of cold and calculated, wicked reason? You can feel the utter disparity between the oppressed and the oppressor.
And yet, there’s more isn’t there? Those made in the image and likeness of God, in our own day, are slaughtering infant babies. Mothers made to house and nurture their infant young are, instead, giving their children up to slaughter for the sake of convenience. Fathers made to protect and to lead are, in addition to having children out of wedlock, putting them up for the slaughter, willingly. Priests in Philadelphia, bearing the glorious name of “minister” are systematically being convicted of rape, molestation, and iniquity—in one case even breaking the back of their victim as they commenced with their iniquitous practice of molestation. Mark the disparity!
Disparity. That is a fact. Living at the expense of our neighbor through unjust social systems—disparity. Manipulating our congregants in the name of “authority”—disparity. Treating the other person as a means to an end alone—disparity. Trafficing, drugging, and brutalizing women for the sake of money and bodily pleasure—disparity. Abuse—disparity. Rape—disparity. Pain—disparity. The dignity of our nature as made in the image and likness of God everywhere brutalized by the actual facts of our existence; disparity.
The Philosopher’s question as to disparity at this point is not so much “why?” but “how?” Not “why is the world this way?”, but “how could it be this way?” His question is primarily a lament, not an inquiry—a question of sorrow, not a question of fact. How could reality be this way? It undoubtedly is, but how? Sadly, in our day, the real push of the question of Theodicy (justification for God’s goodness in light of evil) is made light; it is treated as a chalkboard question which can be answered in mathematical terms alone.
No answer of “for the sake of free-will” satisfies the person who inquires into the disparity of Auschwitz. No answer of “for the greater good” satisfies the individual who is abused by his priest. No, no, no. Chalkboard answers are an insult to the question of disparity. They fail to understand its significance. They are all rationality and no empathy; in failing to empathize, they fail to be rational. In failing to feel, they fail to know.
Yet, can an adequate answer be made to the reality of suffering? I think a rational answer can be made, but it is unsatisfactory to the problem of disparity. What if we asked a different question though? Can an adequate answer as to the legitimacy of the question be given? In other words, what if instead of first seeking to give an answer to the problem of God’s supposed goodness in the light of disparity, we ask the question, “what world would need to exist in order for the question to make sense at the outset?” From what foundation could a claim to injustice on the part of the abused even make sense at all? What worldview could even provide the oppressed with sufficient grounds for the dignity of disparity, his claim to injustice, and his claim to rights?
And there, not only in the chalkboard answer, but in the foundation of the question does Jesus make Himself known. Only within a framework of purposeful cosmic suffering does the question of “how” even make sense at the outset. If the ultimate grounds for the reality of disparity is not the sufferings of Christ and His subsequent glory, then from whence would the pain, the feeling, the empathy, the glory, the personhood; in short, the whole of disparity, come from at all? Only from within the lens of the sufferings and consequent glories of Christ can the answer to the paradox of disparity be adequately furnished.
Disparity without Christ is a bottomless pit of despair. Try to ground disparity in Atheism. Failure. Nihilism. Nothing. Marxism. Matter alone. Evolutionism. Cosmic Indifference. Bare monotheism. Impersonal god. Secular Humanism. A foundation of sand. Each of these worldviews fails to account for the necessary constituents of disparity; the dignity of persons, the reality of evil, and a rationale for it all. Only a cosmic circumstance of disparity made for the sake of a qualitatively superior good (the glory of the God-man Jesus) even functions as a legitimate foundation for the question of disparity at all.
And there in the foundation of the question is the realization of the answer. Only in Christ, through the firm foundation of faith, is the dignity of our experience of disparity grounded and answered. Only in Christ does the question of “how could this happen?” make any sense at all. Only in Jesus, and a world made for the sake of His glory through His own suffering, does the dignity of the question of suffering, evil, and disparity make sense at all. Faith, therefore, is the only adequate response to the indubitable experience of disparity.
(1) For more on Personalism see,
(2) For Frederick Douglass’ autobiography see,